motolaLast Thursday we had the annual Arc Angel Breakfast at Clint Reilly’s Merchants Exchange building in downtown San Francisco. Over 275 people from local businesses were in attendance, along with State Senator Mark Leno and San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener, long-time friends of The Arc San Francisco.

As with other recent Arc breakfasts, this one focused on increasing employment for adults with a range of physical and developmental differences. At The Arc, this still means some adults with physical differences: adults who are wheelchair users, hard of hearing, sight-impaired. In far greater numbers, though, today it means adults with neurological differences: adults with autism, Down syndrome and a range of other neurodiverse conditions.

Kristen Pedersen, the Director of Employment Services, described the increase in job placements over the past year: 298 Arc clients working. 120 business sites, placements with firms in tech, professional services, hospitality and education. Individual workers told their stories about finally finding steady jobs: a kitchen and conference room attendant at Salesforce, an office assistant at LinkedIn, a culinary assistant at a Marriott hotel.

Dr. Glenn Motola (above), Executive Director of The Arc , spoke of a new internship initiative. Arc clients need to get a foot in the door, gain work experience, build a resume. The Arc is asking San Francisco businesses to sponsor unpaid internships, to provide this work experience and resume-building.

Everyone left the event in a good mood. How could you not after seeing this video of the Arc clients talk about their lives and workplaces (here).

Kristen Pedersen Mike Z (4)

And what of the future? One of the themes of The Arc is independent living, and The Arc is involved in two housing partnerships with Mercy Housing. It is also looking to expand “Friends Like Me”, its social gatherings and cooking and drama classes, as well as its anti-bullying campaign. Most of all, though, there is the employment piece. Arc clients and their parents repeatedly tell Dr. Motola of their interest in mainstream employment, and he has made it his priority.

If there is a cautionary note going forward, it involves the workplace culture and general popular culture views of adults with differences, especially neurological or invisible differences. Deloitte has developed a partnership with The Arc, and a Deloitte manager spoke of the upbeat attitude that its two Arc employees bring to the Deloitte workplace in San Francisco. These employees are always positive; they make all the others feel better about the workplace and their missions. One hears this often about the values that workers with differences bring to the workplace, and also the greater loyalty and appreciation of workers with differences over other workers.

But this emphasis on the upbeat can obscure the behavioral and mental health challenges that workers with differences face in the workplace, as in life. A good number of the members of our adult autism group in the Bay Area have been able to find jobs, but have not kept them. They have trouble managing time, or hoarding food, or a hundred other mental health issues. They have their own issues that usually require patience and flexibility in the workplace for workplace success.

For decades, in popular culture—movies, television shows, and novels—adults with physical and neurological differences have served mainly as a means for other characters to solve their problems. Raymond Babbitt (“Rain Man”), Sam Dawson (“I am Sam”), Radio Kennedy (“Radio”) just to name a few, and their differences serve mainly as vehicles for other neurotypical characters to resolve their unhappiness or learn about themselves—just as John Singer, Boo Radley and others did in previous times. They aren’t shown as successfully addressing their own problems.

Dr. Motola is already at work on this. The Arc San Francisco is developing a clinical program, to help clients themselves address the mental health and behavioral challenges that can undermine workforce retention. It is the next needed stage in workforce inclusion.